Chapter 1

“Annia!” Layla shouted angrily.

Anastasia Belle Athena woke up from her dream.

“Annia, you’re late! Get down to my bedroom right now!” screamed Layla.

Annia sighed and quickly got up. She knew Layla would never forgive her for this.

Her world revolved around one fact and that was that she was a household servant.

She had been under her stepfamily’s tyranny for fifteen years now. Since the day she had been born she had been thrust into that nightmare to never escape.

Annia had been sleeping in her attic bedroom and somehow overslept her usual time, which was when she was to begin making breakfast.

Last night, Annia had been scrubbing the floor of the front hall on her hands and knees for a gathering that was coming up in the week ahead. The task had taken her well past midnight to accomplish and she had been extremely tired. Unknowingly, she had overslept and she knew she would have to pay for her tardiness.

Annia lived with her stepfamily, which consisted of her stepmother, her stepsister and her stepbrother.

Annia’s father was a trader and was always on long trade expeditions. In fact he had just left to the town ofAlidathe day before today.

Her stepfamily indeed did like to make her miserable. Annia would sometimes go for days without eating, just working relentlessly. When she dared to ask for something to eat, all she got was a slap in the face and more chores.

Her stepbrother, Edouard Alexei, was sixteen years of age. He had blond, almost white hair and blue eyes. He was slightly taller than Annia and would not go out of his way to bother her as his mother and sister did. He claimed that it was fun to watch his mother and sister do it.

His sister, Layla Alexei was seventeen years of age, almost eighteen in a few days. She had dazzling baby blue eyes, that all the young men in the town were said to gaze lovingly into. She also had straight, shiny golden blond hair that hung down her back.

Her favourite hobby was to watch Annia being bullied or to do it herself. Layla was always taunting Annia. She clearly remembered a time when she had overslept and her stepmother had not been home, but Layla had. Layla had punished Annia by making her stand in her underclothes in the courtyard outside and did not let her come in even when the sky lit up with lighting and it started pouring. All for just oversleeping by five minutes.

 Their mother, Adrianne Alexei, had golden blonde hair as well. Both mother and daughter had hair that was so straight and fine. But their mother had icy blue-grey eyes that were nothing like Edouard’s bright blue ones or like Layla’s soft baby blue eyes. Annia saw fire in them every time she looked at her.

 Her stepmother would also go to any lengths to conceal the fact that Annia was a slave from the public. This was because in theEnchantedKingdomslaves were illegal. But Annia had no idea that such a law was in place.

A few days ago, before her father had left, her stepmother had addressed her in a very rare way.

“My dear Annia, the Royal Ball is coming and we need you to get our garments starched and pressed for us.”

What was so rare was that her stepmother hardly ever spoke to Annia in such a sweet manner, or ever called her dear or darling of any sort.

Even though Annia found this request quite strange, she obeyed.

Annia thought about this as she went down to Layla’s bedroom that morning.

Their manor was a quite large one, as homes went in their area. Her stepmother used it to invite people over and boast of her husband’s success and money. It was decorated lavishly with tapestries and bronze ornaments.

They lived in the town of HeLiOs and in the Enchanted Kingdom.

Annia went down to her stepsister’s room but stopped outside the door because she heard excited voices inside.

“Oh, Edouard, the prince is going to be there and is to choose his bride – the princess, at the Royal Ball!” Layla said to Edouard.

“Yes, well why should I go? I need not wed!” Edouard exclaimed.

“You heard mother. If I marry the prince then I will be royalty and you and mother will have all the wealth you need,” Layla said excitedly. “The king and queen will probably give you and mother a few more manors.”

“What about Annia?” said Edouard. “I mean, we don’t want her to live with us over there too. Do we?”

“Of course not. Mother said she will ‘dispose’ of her easily,” Layla said surreptitiously.

Annia slumped against the wall. All her life people were trying to get rid of her. They always saw her as only a slave- not a human being.

A few days ago, the Royal family, queen Hestia and king Philip had announced a masked ball for their only son, Prince Eros.

Annia had never seen the Royal family; only her stepfamily had caught glimpses of them in the streets. She had heard nothing of the prince’s astonishing looks for days after from Layla.

It was said that the young and handsome prince had reached the age to be married and his parents wanted him to be betrothed before his nineteenth birthday. So a Royal Ball was announced for all the regal maidens in the Kingdom to present themselves to the prince, and he would choose anyone he wanted.

“Anniaaaa!” Layla shouted again. “Where is that scullery maid?”

Feeling her mouth droop into the usual frown, which formed whenever she was around Layla, Annia stepped into the room.

“Yes, Lady? How can I be of your service?”

Annia was never allowed to speak anyone’s names. Layla was ‘Lady’, Edouard was ‘Sir’, and her stepmother was ‘Madam’.

Layla scowled. “Where in the bloodyEnchantedKingdomhave you been? I called you five minutes ago. You’re not being paid to sit around!”

Annia hid a sardonic smile. She was never paid, nor would she ever be. The line was one of Layla’s favourites.

Layla’s mother entered the room just then. She gave Layla a look and said harshly, “Young women who are hoping to be betrothed to the prince should not speak words like that.”

Layla simpered and big tears welled up in her eyes and threatened to fall. “I’m so-orry mother. I didn’t know.”

Her mother sat down on the bed next to her, hugging her. “Oh love, I’m sorry. I just want the best for you.”

Annia rolled her eyes. She couldn’t believe that her stepmother still fell for Layla’s crying and simpering acts all time.

After Layla had calmed down and her mother had promised her two new gowns, she turned her attention to Annia.

“For the second time this month, you were late this morning. You’ll have to polish the floors of the hall due to your lazy and careless behaviour. I want them sparkling. Is that clear?”

“But, Madam, I was late because I was tired from doing your bidding. And it’s not as if I was making love to all the young men in the town, like Layla was,” Annia said. quickly The second the words were out of her mouth, she felt like catching them and pushing them down her throat and eating her words. Often she made the mistake of speaking without thinking.

Her stepmother and stepsister both shot her with such fierce glares that Annia didn’t know whose look was deadlier.

“For your impertinence,” said her stepmother in a voice of deadly calm, “you shall have to clean the place of the fire as well.”

Annia continued to keep eye contact with her stepmother. She wanted to show her that she wasn’t scared, when inside she was trembling. There was a raging fire in her stepmother’s eyes that the usual iciness could not extinguish.

Then, her stepmother turned her attention to her son. “Edouard, it is time for you to get your eyebrows plucked, so please leave. I need to speak to Layla alone.”

As Edouard left, Layla turned to Annia. “Annia, we need another girl’s opinion. Mother and I are just not enough. Which one, Annia, which one will I look the most ravishing in?”

Annia looked around for the first time she entered the room at Layla’s usual neat and tidy room. It was strewn with gowns. On her bed with pink silk sheets, were three gowns. They were all of different colours and the latest fashions.

They were all hideous shades of pink and had very similar designs.

“They all look the same to me. Are they not the same?” said Annia.

Her stepmother slapped her and Annia screamed. “You continue to be so rude when we have bestowed this favour upon you.”

Annia was about to ask what favour that would be, but decided against it. “You have such a comfortable place in our home and we’re so kind and loving to you day after day.”

Annia almost snorted, but stopped.

“Go do your chores now,” her stepmother said.

Annia hurried out of the room and heard her stepmother pick one of the hideous pink gowns, saying, “…. will make you look quite sliming, dear.”

Annia silently laughed as she left and shook her head in mirth.

After she was done laughing, Annia felt wistful; wishing she could go to the ball. It had been weeks since she had been outside and hoped for company other than her stepfamily.

She tossed out a picture of herself dancing with the handsome prince that had just entered her head. She looked around suspiciously to see if anyone had seen her quick smile and sighed with relief when she heard laughter upstairs. She would be beaten if she was caught daydreaming,

Annia worked all day long, cleaning, cooking, laundering, drying, gardening and many other things. She kept her mind on her chores and tried to keep it off the ball and her dream.

She dreaded her cleaning the fireplace the next evening. It was something that wasn’t included in her everyday work; it was only issued for a punishment.

 One time when she had been cleaning the fireplace, she got fully covered in cinders and ashes that you could barely make out her eyes. Edouard and Layla started calling her ‘Cinder Soot’.

Her stepmother saw her leaving the kitchen to clean the bathrooms and stopped her.

“I need you to go the marketplace and get some things for dinner. Here is the list,” she thrust the list into her hand. “Don’t forget anything or you’ll be sent back,” she said, her eyes flashing dangerously.

Annia curtsied. “Yes, madam.”

So she went to the kitchen and got the shopping basket. As she was leaving, her stepmother said, “Wear your nicest cloak, I don’t want people thinking I raised you in a barn, which is what you smell like most of the time.”

Annia nodded and kept her remark in her head, which had been that the house smelled like a barn what with Layla living there.

Instead she went to get her dark green cloak. She wrapped it around her, grabbed the basket and left.

Once when Annia was very little, she had almost escaped while doing chores outside. But since that day everyone in the neighbourhood knew that Annia was a maid and she wasn’t to run away. But Annia would never run away, the conversation from that day was still fresh in her mind.

“Whom were you going to meet?” asked her stepmother after spanking a seven-year-old Annia.

Sobbing, Annia said, “No one.”

“You were going to meet someone, were you not?” she demanded, smacking her with the broom.

“No…I wasn’t…” stammered Annia with fresh tears rolling down her cheeks. “I was thirsty and I was…going to ask Madam Rose…for a drink…” she hiccupped.

“Thirsty my…”

“Mother! She has water in the basket!” screamed Layla looking in the basket.

Annia’s stepmother looked and indeed, there was a flask of water, enough for a few days.

She opened the cap and dumped the whole bottle on Annia while she stood and cried.

“That should teach you to ever go anywhere but where you are ordered to go. We have fed you, we have clothed you and you’re still ungrateful to us! You wench! You’re not allowed to dry yourself! Go and clean the fireplace and after that finish the rest of your chores!” she screamed.

Annia obeyed and stayed wet and cold the entire day. For the next week, she had a cold and was sick.

Thinking about that incident, Annia sighed as she picked up a piece of bread and wrote her name on a piece of parchment. Her stepmother would come by later and pay the merchants with real money. This was just an ingenious idea of Adrianne’s that stopped Annia from getting her hands on money and using it to escape.

Annia noticed a woman buying produce as she walked to the next stand to get vegetables. With her were three little children, a brother and two sisters. They were holding hands and smiling at each other.

Annia stared at them and smiled.  They looked so sweet together and they loved each other very much, Annia could tell.

The smallest girl was the cutest and had red hair and bright blue eyes.

Annia crouched on the ground and kneeled to kiss the sweet girl on the cheek, when the woman grabbed her children.

“Don’t ever come near my children again!” she yelped. “You…witch!”

Then she left dragging her children behind her. Other people were staring at Annia, whispering things about her.

She just shrugged and adjusted her cloak on her shoulders. She continued her shopping, talking to no one on the way.

Annia used to be friendly but when no one responded to her friendliness she stopped. People always thought her queer because of her colour changing eyes and her big mouth.

Everyone in the town stayed out of Annia’s way except Madam Rose, who was an elderly lady who sometimes smiled and said hello to her.

Annia looked out for her in the market, but she supposed that she was just busy with her children. Annia went in search of milk when she heard the market owner disputing with someone.

Annia found the milk right next to where the dispute was. She stood in line to ‘pay’ for the milk and could not help but overhear.

The market owner was yelling at a young woman, in her late twenties, who had a little boy hiding behind her dress. Annia assumed she was his wife.

“I told you, Ben won’t continue with the tutor! He needs to be trained to be a salesman!” yelled the Owner.

“But Sir, there’s no reason for him to do both,” said the woman. “Right now he is studying with his tutor and with you.”

“I cannot allow it! If he is to be a salesman, then he shall have to spend all his time with me, not some time wasting tutor! That is my last word on the subject, no more,” he said.

“But Sir…” she began.

“Go home, right now,” he commanded.

She nodded and scooped the boy into her arms and walked away.

Annia felt sorry for the woman, she had no say in the subject, but that was just the way it was for women in the kingdom.

Annia bought mostly everything on her list and reached Layla’s things. There were shoes, makeup and some gowns for trying to impress the king and queen. Annia rolled her eyes at the last item and walked to an area that only rich people shopped in.

Usually Annia’s stepmother bought these things, but since she was busy in preparing Layla for the ball she could not come out.

Now Annia knew why her stepmother told her to wear her best cloak, as she looked about. It was like she had crossed the border between the two worlds. She bought the things in reverse order since the gown shop was the closest. She gave the gown order to the man behind the counter and went to the shop next door to pick up Layla’s order of cosmetics.

Lastly, Annia trudged to the bookshop. Normally, Layla and her mother refused to read, but lately Layla had gotten plump and her mother wanted her to look perfect for the ball and one of her friends had recommended a book that would help her. The book was titled 24 ways to lose 24 pounds. Annia had to pick it up, among a few other self help books of Layla’s.

Just as she walked up the stairs to the shop, she heard some thundering overhead and she looked up. The cloud has suddenly darkened and it looked like there were be lighting soon, just because it had started to thunder.

That was strange, thought Annia. Just a few minutes ago, the day was as clear as the night and there hadn’t been a cloud in sight.

As soon as she opened the door to the shop, a knight held the door and stood in her way, stopping her.

“Stop. No one is allowed to be in the same shop as His Highness,” barked the knight.

Annia raised her eyebrows and tried to get a glimpse of the reclusive prince, but several other knights crowded him.

“No, she is allowed,” said Sir William, the shopkeeper. He smiled at Annia and she smiled warmly back, while trying to hold onto her basket as the knight towered over her.

Annia was always allowed to get her stepfamily’ books for them because she always got discounts from the shopkeeper, who had taken a liking to her. He always ‘happened’ to lose their order and gave Annia a chance to sit while he looked for them.

A loud and authoritative voice came from behind the knights. “You may all leave. I don’t need twenty five men to help me look for a book.”

Annia had no idea who said it but as the knights began to leave she saw a young man, seated on the red cushioned bench as Sir William brought piles and piles of books from inside.

She walked to the counter and waited for Sir William to come, but as he was busy, she started gazing at the different books.

“I will be right there, Lady StasiaAnna,” came Sir William’s voice from the back.

“No hurry, Sir,” she said putting her basket on a bench. She smiled to herself; she didn’t feel like correcting Sir William again about her name.

The young man looked up and noticed her. By now, Annia was sure he was the prince of theEnchantedKingdom. He looked at her and saw her smiling, so he smiled too. Annia didn’t know she was being observed.

She looked at the books that lined the walls. There were many thick and thin ones, both in hard cover and soft cover.

She saw one that was about the history of the kingdom. As she pulled it off the shelf to examine the back cover, she felt the presence of someone next to her.

Looking up, she saw the prince standing right next to her, looking at a woman’s grooming techniques book.

Annia was about to gasp but then closed her mouth in time. She was shorter than him, so he loomed over her, like a giant. She was about five feet and two inches and he was close to six feet.

Annia didn’t blink for a few seconds. She just stared at the prince. He was the most handsome man she had ever had the fortune to lay her eyes on.

He had short, dark brown curly hair with a gold crown with emeralds resting on it. Fair his skin was, with bits of red on his cheeks, perhaps from being flustered with his knights. What fascinated her the most were his eyes. His eyes were green and sparkled and glimmered with every turn of his head. They held seriousness, interest, frustration, but also enjoyment, laughter and playfulness.

Annia got lost in his eyes that she didn’t even know she was staring until the book in her hands slipped and fell on the carpeted floor.

Annia went down to pick it up, but found the prince to be already there. They both picked it up at the same time. He smiled the most charming smile ever and his green eyes twinkled, and somehow looked greener.

Annia felt like sparks went through her body and she took it from him and stood up at the same time as him, her eyes locked on his. He put the book back on the shelf.

“Hello,” he said in a manly voice, with a boyish liveliness. “I’m Prince Eros. Pleasure to meet you.”

Awed that the prince spoke to her, Annia forgot to curtsy. Her mouth was open and as soon as she realised it, she closed it.

“The pleasure is all mine, your Highness,” she said smiling, making her eyes change from blue to brown. “My name is Anna.”

“Anna?” he asked her, smiling, with a twinkle in his eye.

“Or as Sir William calls me, Lady StasiaAnna,” she said. She had told him a different name because she was afraid that if her stepmother had found out that she had spoken to the prince, she would have no proof, as her name was something else.

He laughed. “Sorry about my knights not giving you a chance to come in,” he said.

“It is quite all right, your Highness. I understand what it must be like with knights always following you everywhere and watching your every move.” Annia shifted; she could not believe she just said that to the prince. She clasped her hands over her mouth. It was one thing to mouth off at her stepmother and stepsister, but quite another to get cheeky with the man who had the power to take away your life.

He laughed. “You’re the first person who has ever spoken openly to me,” he said. He sounded impressed not angry. “How do you know what it is like?”

Annia shrugged and smiled. “Well, I can imagine what it is like when people don’t leave you alone when you want to be alone. It is like they are trying to protect you, and be nice, and you don’t want to seem unappreciative but at the same time you want to be alone, even if it is to look at books.”

The prince now seemed amused and unbelieving, “I never knew anyone actually knew my frustration when I have twenty five knights following me everywhere even when I go to the bathroom.”

Annia laughed. “I don’t actually know, your Highness. But I can surely imagine.”

He smiled again. “Fascinating.”

Their eyes were locked and for a moment they seemed lost in a world of their own. Annia didn’t even realise that the prince was staring at her in the same manner that she was staring at him.

“StasiaAnna!” came Sir William’s voice. Annia started and looked at the elderly man. “Yes Sir William?”

He handed her the books and said, “There you are, Lady. Now just…”

Annia stole one more look at the prince and found him looking at her. She looked quickly away and started walking outside, but Sir William called her back in.

“Lady StasiaAnna! I need to package them!”

Annia rushed back in and gave them to him. Her face was hot from her embarrassment. She felt very dense for not listening to Sir William when he was trying to tell her that he still needed to wrap them. She timidly looked up to see the prince’s expression and she saw that he looking at her with a smile playing at his lips, his eyes twinkling.

He wrapped the books and Annia left again. As she walked out, their eyes locked again.

Annia walked into the street, with heavy rain starting to pour when she realised that she had forgotten something. She slapped herself on the head and rushed back into the shop.

She saw the prince sitting on the bench once again with Sir William bringing in some more books for him to look at.

Annia smiled ashamedly and picked up her basket that she had left on the bench. She turned to go once more, and then said, aloud, “I forgot to curtsy!” She spun around, curtsied quickly in front of the prince then ran out in the downpour.

Laughing at herself, Annia ran home. She had done the most stupid things and yet the prince hadn’t seemed to hate her. She skipped all the way home, enjoying the rain.

Rain was Annia’s favourite thing. Whenever it rained, Annia would go about her chores happily. She would even be eager to go outside and tend to the horses.

The prince was amazing, thought Annia. He seemed so kind and good-natured with a wonderful sense of humour. When she had heard Layla talk about him, she guessed that he would be of that same morale and manner as Layla, but he was the opposite. He was so nice to her when she was a slave.

Then she remembered that she didn’t look like a slave since she had been wearing her nice cloak.

Annia sighed. It was so expected that he would be nice as she looked like a courtesan. She didn’t care she decided as she was sure she would never see him again.

On her way home, she saw Madam Rose having a conversation with someone. Annia had to give her something back, so she waited patiently for Madame Rose to finish her conversation.

While Annia stood there, she couldn’t help but listen to bits of her conversation.

“It is quite sad,” said the woman Madam Rose was talking to. “The prince’s special maid has died.”

Madam Rose nodded. “I have heard that she took care of him since he was a baby. He was must heartbroken.”

“He is,” the other woman said. “The king and queen are looking for another maid to do his regular work for him. They want someone younger this time, it is rumoured.”

Madam Rose finally turned her attention to Annia and she returned her plate.

Then she continued her way home and completed her day’s work. When she was done, she retired to her attic bedroom for the night.

As she undressed, Annia wondered about the ball. Even if she could go to the ball, what would she wear?

All of her gowns were quite old and dirty now, from working for her stepmother. None of them were colourful or very stylish. They were mostly tan coloured or dark blue and they were long sleeved and high-necked.

Thinking about gowns, balls and princes, Annia fell into deep slumber.

She awoke in the wee hours of the morning and stretched. Her attic bedroom consisted of a falling apart bed, a measly dresser and a window with a view of the courtyard below.

 She quickly got dressed in a long brown dress and brushed her ever-growing hair.

As she went downstairs she remembered that the ball was today. She wished with all her heart that she could go. Just so that once, she could see the outside world. Annia had heard about the palace and the king and queen and wanted to see them, just for curiosity’s sake. And since she had met the charming prince yesterday, she had a small desire to see and talk to him again.

But she knew it was impossible so she went to the kitchen and began setting the table.

“Oh, today is the day of the Ball -the day I become a princess!” exclaimed Layla as she hurried in and sat down.

“Now Layla, be confident and act like your sweet self,” said her mother coming in behind her. “The prince is sure to fall for your beauty…or at least your bosom.”

Layla and her mother laughed hysterically. Edouard hadn’t yet arrived.

“Annia come here,” her stepmother addressed her.

“Yes, Madam? What can I do to assist you?”

“I feel like fried eggs and toast this morning. After breakfast, prepare Layla for the Ball,” decreed her stepmother.

“Yes, Madam. Right away,” said Annia and she left for the kitchens. She brought back her stepmother’s breakfast after a few minutes and put it on the table before her.

“Layla, why are you not eating?” asked her mother.

“Oh, mother. Eating will make me fat and I don’t want to get fat. I want to look my best. It is a tip from the book.”

“Good idea, dear,” praised her mother.

Annia started to laugh, but stopped herself. The truth was that any other day Layla would be eating dozens of pastries for breakfast and her mother would scold her saying that she didn’t want a fat daughter. Layla would pout and then her stepmother would buy her a dozen more the next day. It was an endless circle of idiocy.

“Annia, make me something,” said Edouard as he came in.

“Yes, sir,” said Annia and she went back to the kitchens.

After breakfast, Annia followed Layla to her room and began preparations. It took several hours to get Layla ready. First her hair had to be washed and set, then curled and styled. Her body was then rubbed with oils and fragrances. A special jasmine cream was put on for a shine. Then the clothes were left.

“Annia, squeeze my corset tighter! I want to be thinner,” commanded Layla.

“But, my lady, you won’t be able to breathe if it is any tighter,” remonstrated Annia. In her head she thought, it wouldn’t be my fault if you suffocated and died.

“Annia, Annia. I don’t care if I cannot breathe. I just have to look faultless!” exclaimed Layla.

“Yes, my Lady.” Annia squeezed the corset as snug as she could. Then she slipped the dress over.

At around the hour of seven, Layla declared herself ready and showed off in front of her mother.

Exhausted from cleaning the hall, Annia heard the compliments of her hard work downstairs.

“Oh Layla! You’re certain to win the prince’s heart! You look simply divine!” exclaimed her mother. After Annia had dressed Layla, she had then gone to assist her stepmother get ready, who was wearing a blue gown.

“Do I really?! Let’s leave now!” said Layla.

As the family departed her stepmother reminded her. “Don’t forget to clean the place of the fire, otherwise there will be consequences.”

Annia nodded and watched them leave. They hurried out without a good-bye and left Annia in her lonesome.

Slumping into a chair, Annia thought about how much she wished to go to the Ball. Even though she was a bit cheeky with her stepfamily, she wanted so much to please them. But she also longed for a real life and a real family, one that would love her. She wanted to be loved, just once. Annia wished that for one day, for one hour, even for one minute she would be treated like an individual worthy of anyone.

When people looked at her, she wanted them not to look at her position; her riches (or lack of thereof), her dirty clothes, her matted hair or that people thought her a sorceress.

She wanted people to look at her heart. Annia felt that no matter how much love and care she gave to people, she never got any back.

She wanted people to see that even if you have no respect, are dirty, have no money and don’t have a good job, you can still be a good person.

Annia didn’t regret anything. She was very grateful for everything she had. She also knew that, if it were not for her family, then she would be out on the streets somewhere, cold, alone and hungry.

Even though she felt this way everyday, she still was very grateful that she at least had something. Because she knew that some people had even less than her, and so even though they treated her awful, she loved her family, because it was all she had.

Annia knew they didn’t love her. As much as they treated her with indifference, the more she wanted to embrace them and feel as if they loved her.

Day after day, she did what they wanted, hoping for a glimpse of some love. Sometimes when Annia would forget her cleaning supplies in various rooms, due to her horrible memory, Edouard would walk by and say things like, “You left the broom in the entrance hall. Take it away before the guests arrive, or else….” At that, Annia would hurry to retrieve the lost item, relieved that she had been saved from a yelling, or even worse, a beating from her stepmother.

Her father would usually be gone on trade expeditions and not at home for weeks at a time, but when he would come home after awhile, he would tell her to eat something. Annia would hurry in to bring his tea, while it was still hot, trying not to trip and give it to him. He would look up and say, “Adrianne, the girl hasn’t eaten anything for days. Give her something to eat before she faints or dies and I have to find you yet another maid.” Then she would be given a half-hour to eat something and then resuming her chores after.

These moments were rare, but they were present in her life. Not day to day, but were there so that those moments were the ones holding her together, making sure she kept at it.

As soon as these moments passed, it was back to the usual treatment, but Annia was fine with it. Because she knew that someday, deep down in their hearts, love and appreciation would bud, just like the way she loved them. And she waited for that moment every day with baited breath.

With these thoughts in her head, Annia put her head down on her dirty sleeve, and fell asleep.

Fifteen minutes later, Annia woke up and she saw herself looking at a silk glittery sky blue sleeve.

Looking down at the gown on her, she gasped and ran to the nearest full length mirror.

Staring at herself, she saw her eyes widen underneath a dark blue shimmering mask that covered half her face.

Annia was wearing a gown so beautiful; she had never seen anything so spectacular. Even the gowns that Layla wore where nowhere as regal and stately as the one she wore.

It had glittering net over it, giving the gown a shimmer. The sleeves were long and had slits to reveal her arms. Her hair was combed and straightened and was tied back in a twist. Her usual sooty face was now shining and it showed her fair face.

On her neck was the pendant she always wore; a flower with a blue centre and lilac petals and on her ears were stud flower earrings to match her necklace. Fingering the necklace, she smiled. It was the necklace her mother had given to her.

Annia lifted her gown to reveal two sparkly slippers and suddenly remembered the ones she had worn in her dream. It was almost like her dream was coming true.

Staring, Annia almost could not recognize herself. She had never seen herself like this and Annia knew it was vain to say so, but she looked attractive.

As she stared, there was a knock on the door. Annia didn’t have the slightest idea of who it was.

 She opened it cautiously, just in case it was her stepfamily and they had forgotten something.

“Oh my, heavens!” cried Annia.

In front of her stood a pearly white carriage with a footman, driver and white horses.

“Your carriage awaits you, my lady,” said the footman bowing.

Annia stammered, “But who? How?”

“We don’t know ourselves. We went into the carriage at noon to clean it,” explained the footman, “when we received a note which said, please pick up a Lady Anastasia Belle Athena at this address and to drop her off at the Palace.”

“Oh,” said Annia, who was immensely baffled by the mystery of who sent the carriage and also by how she came to be wearing the clothes.

The footman saw how befuddled she was. “Never mind, Lady. We’re as confused as well, perhaps when we get to the Palace we shall find out.”

“All right,” said Annia tentatively as she climbed in.

The carriage was breathtaking.  The seats were light pink with cushions that had lace. The carriage doors windows were covered with lacy pink curtains.

The footman closed the door and Annia sat down. She felt the carriage lurch forward and her heart skip a beat.

Gawping out the window into the land she had lived all her live, Annia realised that she never dared to explore it.

Before she knew it, the carriage stopped. The footman opened the door and Annia stepped out to a magnificent castle entrance.

Annia looked around and saw other carriages parked in line. Out of all the black carriages, her pearly white one stood out.

Her heart beat wildly in her chest thinking about meeting the prince again for the second time. She knew he wouldn’t recognize her, but she still was hopeful.

A man glided down the shiny, marble steps and approached her. In his hand was a roll of parchment.

“Welcome my lady, to the grand Ball of King Philip and queen Hestia in honour of their son, Prince Eros – the first. Your name please?” the man inquired.

“Um… Yes…um, my name is Bella Athia,” she stumbled. The name was taken from bits of her name, but she wanted it to be as different from her own in case anyone found her. It was unlikely that she would be found out, as she looked so different.

Annia didn’t think her name was going to be on the list and got ready to be escorted out of the Palace.

The man peered down at a piece of parchment and said surprisingly, “Ah, yes, Lady Bella. You may go in,” he instructed.

Annia waved to the footman and said, “I shall be back at around eleven. You may leave until then.”

Then she went up the stairs, wondering with great earnest how her name came to be on the list.  Soon she forgot all about it when she walked through into a grand ballroom where people were milling around in robes and gowns.

On three sides of the ballroom were large windows, with gigantic drapes held back showing the star-studded sky.

In the corner of the room was an orchestra set up and playing music. At the far end of the room Annia noticed, were three jewelled thrones.

On the first throne sat Queen Hestia. She wasn’t old, as she had married when she was young.

She had a handsome face that was made just for smiles. Her green eyes shone as she looked around. Annia recognized the eyes on the prince, although the prince’s eyes were brighter.

On her brown hair in a bun was a gold crown with many jewels. She wore a royal red gown with gold lace.

Beside her, was his Royal Majesty himself, King Philip. He looked very regal and just. He wore maroon trousers and a jacket, with a navy robe. On his curly brown hair was a crown. His blue eyes seemed firm and powerful, but with a hint of kindness. He didn’t look that old either, maybe a few years older than the queen.

The throne next to him was empty; Annia assumed it was the prince’s.

People were dancing all around her and before she knew it, Annia was asked to dance- three times.

She enjoyed each dance and thought, so this is what it’s like to be of first class. She felt wonderful and free as she twirled and whirled. It was a bit different as she wasn’t carrying a bucket around, but she quite liked it.

After a few dances, she decided to get something to eat.

Annia noticed a girl watching her peculiarly, as she helped herself to some food. She didn’t get to get a good look at her because she was swept off her feet again. When she came back, the young girl had disappeared.

This new freedom, even if it was for one night, amazed her. Annia was astounded at how you could just take food without asking and at how people were looking at her and wanting to dance with her

In the centre of the hall, there was a young man, Annia noticed. Many people had formed a circle around him and the girl he was dancing with, so Annia could not see very well. Also there was a line of girls, formed behind him.

From what Annia could see, she saw that he was the same young man who she had seen in the bookshop. Her heart started hammering again in her chest, and Annia was surprised. She had never guessed she was such a nervous person.

As Annia looked around, she noticed her stepmother, stepbrother and stepsister. She adjusted her mask and went to stand in the circle that had formed around the prince. Since she was wearing a mask, Annia felt daring and brave tonight.

Layla was second in line and the rest of the family stood watching and waiting.

Annia wasn’t here to wed, and only to live for a day, but she felt a certain desire to dance with the prince. She knew she would never see him again after tonight, but she wanted to take the risk and dance with him, just once.

Annia moved from behind an elderly man and got in line.

The prince was dancing with a young pretty woman. She had long golden tresses that were curled to bounce off her light pink gown.

He looked at the young women that were in line. His eyes went to the next person, in a pink gown that was smiling triumphantly, to the last girl in line.

As he looked at her, he saw something familiar about her. But then he supposed that since he had danced with about a hundred maidens tonight, they were all going to look the same to him.

However, there was something mysterious about her and he felt like she had a secret. He wanted to know the secret, but turned his attention back to the girl he was dancing with.

Several minutes later, Annia came forward when her turn came and bowed. Her heart was pounding away and she was certain that the whole hall heard. Her cheeks were flushed.

She was so nervous that when she bowed and tried to get up, her long gown got caught in her slipper and she tripped and fell.

The prince caught her just as she began to fall. Annia felt her cheeks redden more and she felt silly for coming. She wanted to hit herself; she was trying to be regal and act like the first class people.

People gasped and then started to laugh, as she stood up.

“I’m so sorry, your Highness,” she said, curtsying again, failing to trip this time.

But he didn’t look upset or even embarrassed. He smiled and his eyes glittered.

“Quite all right.” He was laughing.

Shaking a bit, Annia smoothed out her gown.

“Would you like to dance now?” he asked her. “That is if you’re up to it…”

Annia took his hand, however couldn’t help saying, “I thought princes were supposed to be charming and polite and weren’t supposed to laugh and mock you.”

He laughed again. “Whatever gave you that idea?”

She shrugged.

“What is your name?” he inquired. He quite liked this young woman. She was funny and open. She had even contradicted him, by saying that he wasn’t polite.

“Bella Athia,” he heard her say with slight hesitation.

 “Where do you come from Lady… Bella?” he asked.

“I live right here, in HeLiOs Majesty,” she replied.

“What do you like to do?” he asked, jumping to the next question on the list of questions he asked every girl tonight.

Annia thought for a moment. “I enjoy reading…”

The prince smiled. “Finally someone who didn’t say they enjoy coming to balls.”

Laughing, Annia looked into his eyes. They were the greenest eyes she had ever seen and they made her breath catch in her throat. They sparkled and when he smiled handsomely at her, they twinkled.

She decided to ask him a question. “Are you enjoying the ball, Highness?”

“Not quite,” he said honestly. “I’m supposed to find a bride to wed, but they are trying too hard to impress me that I don’t know what they are really like. Also all of them are painted dolls. Their answers to all my questions are the same, as if they were rehearsed and from a script.”

Annia laughed and then said honesty, “They are rehearsed, Highness.”

He smiled, making her heart skip a beat. “I know they are and it irks me. Why can’t they just be natural?

Annia shrugged and they continued to dance.

Finally the dance came to an end. Annia and the prince bowed to each other. As they were bowing, their heads banged together.

Annia looked embarrassed, nervous and terrified at once.

“I’m so sorry, your Highness,” she said, holding her hands to her mouth.

He just laughed again and shook his head. “It’s all right. Please call me Eros.”

“Eros?” she questioned.

Laughing again, he said, “Yes, it’s my name.”

She laughed as well. “I meant it’s an honour that you have bestowed upon me and…”

He put up his hand and frowned at her. “You’ve disappointed me, Lady Bella.”

Terrified, Annia trembled. “Why?”

“Because you were the only one who wasn’t a painted doll and now you have become one, saying your script,” he said, his eyes twinkling.

Annia realised he was joking, so she laughed. “Oh sorry. I will remember to be rude then.”

He smiled mischievously at her and winked. “That is the way I like it.”

Annia laughed again and saw the other girls wanting a chance to dance with the prince.

“It was a pleasure to dance with you, Lady Bella,” he said, smiling.

Annia smiled back. “It was a pleasure dancing with you, Eros.”

“You’re the only real one here, don’t ever change that,” he said, leaving her to dance with another woman.

She moved back away to the edge of the circle, smiling. Dancing with the prince had been so …refreshing and it felt great to have someone to talk to like that. He was the same when she was in the bookshop, except that she got to know more of his good-humoured nature now.

When Annia tripped tonight, her stepmother had been watching her. Of course, it wasn’t in the understanding of Adrianne that the girl she was watching was her stepdaughter.

She laughed openly as she watched the girl trip. Her relatives were sure going to be upset at her, Adrianne guessed. If that had been Layla, and she had just tripped whilst dancing with the prince, Adrianne would punish her severely.

“You did well, Layla,” complimented her mother.

Layla nodded, eating an éclair. “I did, didn’t I? I won’t be surprised if the king and queen shall be calling on us tomorrow.”

Adrianne nodded and smiled. “Look at that girl,” she said, gesturing to her stepdaughter who had hit her head with the prince’s.

Layla laughed. “I’m sure the prince never wants to meet her again.”

“You’re right,” she said, looking around for Edouard. “Where has that boy gone off to?”

Layla shrugged, polishing off another pastry. “Thank goodness that didn’t happen to me though, mother.”

Her mother smiled. “Be glad it didn’t.”

After finishing her dance with the prince, Annia had avoided her stepmother and stepsister, by staying on the other side of the hall. She ate a bit and then checked the clock outside.

It was eleven, so she went outside to wait for her carriage, but didn’t need to as it was already there.

She smiled to the coachman as he helped her in. She sat down and leaned back in her seat, tired. This time she wasn’t tired from working, but from all the fun. The prince had been amazing and she had had such a wonderful time talking and laughing with him. She had also enjoyed dancing with several other gentlemen, who were very nice to her. The prince’s cousins had also been present and Annia had bumped into one of them.

“Quite sorry,” said one of the girls, smiling.

“Not at all,” Annia had said. “I was just going to get in line to dance with…”

The older girl smiled then. “Don’t let me keep you then. Enjoy your dance with my cousin.”

As their carriage began to embark on their journey, Annia heard voices coming down the stairs of the Palace so she peeked out of the carriage window.

“Look at that carriage, mother. It’s so unusual, but gorgeous,” said a voice.

As soon as she had poked her head out, she brought it back in, after almost screaming.

Coming down the stairs lazily was her stepfamily. If she didn’t want to get in trouble, she would have to beat them home.

“Driver, step on it!’” she said.

Annia heard the whip crack and then the horses went around the circular driveway that formed around a large fountain and went back up the main road to the enormous gates.

The gates opened and they sped through. During the whole ride, Annia was afraid that she wasn’t going to get there in time. She kept on thinking of the horrible punishments she would receive when her stepmother found out she had been at the ball.

In ten minutes, they got there. Annia rushed out, thanking them quickly and running into the house.

The manor was still empty, a relieved Annia noticed. But they were bound to be home soon and her stepmother would ask why the fireplace in the drawing room still looked as it did before she left.

First, she ran upstairs stuffing her gown, shoes, and mask into her small dresser and donning an old gown. Then she ran back downstairs and rubbed some soot over her face and hands. She hated to get dirty after looking nice for once, but she knew she had to if she didn’t want to get beaten at this hour.

Annia told herself that the dream was over and reality had come back. So it was time for her to remember her duties and to just forget everything tonight. Because if her stepmother noticed her looking too pleased or ecstatic, she would become suspicious because in the family Annia lived in, she had no right to look pretty or to be happy.

Pushing these thoughts out of her head, she undid the twist in her hair, watching it cascade down and then rubbed some soot in it as well.

Then she began scrubbing the fireplace as if her life depended on it. Luckily, Annia was a fast worker and this time, she didn’t stop to daydream as she usually did so she finished the job just as the front door opened.

She quickly got up, looking sooty and dirty. For once, Annia was glad to be dirty because it pleased her stepmother and if her stepmother was happy, then she wouldn’t be mistrustful.

Meeting them in the hall as she was going upstairs, she dropped a quick curtsy.

“How was the ball, Lady?” Annia inquired, trying to be conversational.

“Lovely,” said Layla, fanning herself with her fan. “You should have been there, it was amazing. The prince danced with me twice.”

She nodded and smiled.

“But of course, you couldn’t have come. The king and queen would’ve been furious. They wouldn’t want the Palace covered with soot, now would they?” said her stepmother.

“Of course not, Madam,” said Annia meekly.

“Did you clean the fireplace?” she inquired.

Annia nodded and her stepmother went off to scrutinize. After a minute she came back looking pleased.

“Well, Annia, for once you have done something well,” she said.

Annia couldn’t help but smile. It was a rare thing for her stepmother to compliment her so a compliment from her was real treat.

“Now assist Layla and Edouard with bed and then assist me,” she ordered.

Annia followed them upstairs and did as she was told. An hour later, she rested in her bedroom, recollecting the events of tonight.

She smiled as she fell asleep, thinking of the prince’s magical green eyes.

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